Three Manitoulin Anishinaabe-kwe win Indspire Awards


OTTAWA – The list of 2020 laureates who will be receiving this year’s Indspire Awards—the highest honours that Indigenous people across Canada award to Indigenous individuals—is now public, and three of the 11 winners (that’s more than a quarter of this year’s cohort) are from Manitoulin Island.

The names of the 2020 laureates with roots on Manitoulin Island may be familiar to readers of this newspaper, as their past accomplishments have kept them securely within headlines in recent years. 

Lawyer, health advocate and Little Native Hockey League (LNHL) president Marian Jacko, originally from Wiikwemkoong, has received the 2020 Indspire Award for Law and Justice.

Entrepreneur, business leader and former Aundeck Omni Kaning band councillor Dawn Madahbee Leach, who has led Waubetek Business Development Corporation since 1988, won the 2020 Indspire Award for Business and Commerce.

Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, an Indigenous rights activist, constitutional changer, educator and former president of the Ontario Native Women’s Association who hails from Wiikwemkoong, has been honoured with the 2020 Indspire Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Expositor reached out to all three winners to get their perspectives on the news, though Ms. Corbiere Lavell was unable to respond by press time Monday.

Ms. Jacko, who now lives in Mississauga, said she was shocked and honoured to get the phone call from Indspire president and CEO Roberta Jamieson informing her of the good news. 

Ms. Jacko keeps rather busy. As the first-ever Indigenous person to hold the position of children’s lawyer for Ontario, the board president of Anishnawbe Health of Toronto and president of the LNHL, it’s a wonder that she could split her time between her various roles and conduct them all as effectively as she has.

“I think back about my father. He was a leader of my community, a hunter, trapper and fisherman seasonally, and in the summer he was busy planting our garden. I don’t think I ever saw him sitting down and watching TV, except for a hockey game,” she said with a laugh.

Those lessons have stayed with her throughout her life.

“I really, truly believe in working for the community and giving back, so when I’m not doing my day job I volunteer,” said Ms. Jacko.

She has brothers and sisters still living in Wiikwemkoong so she tries to visit when she can, especially in the summers.

Ms. Jacko’s journey to success took a long and difficult path. She was a young single mother when she decided to move to Toronto, where she knew nobody, to raise her toddler while going to law school.

“When I look back at what I did, if I were to try to do it again today or were to counsel someone going through the same thing, I think it would be nearly impossible,” she said.

Ms. Jacko moved into Native student and family housing and had to face the relentless pressure to quit the overwhelming school life and focus on being a mother.

“My mom kept me focused and grounded. She reminded me that I was doing this for my son, to better our lives, and that really helped me get through those hard times,” she said, adding that she finally graduated when her son was eight years old.

Ms. Jacko said she hoped her success in the face of such trials would inspire other young people who dream of pursuing higher education but feel they cannot manage parenthood or other responsibilities at the same time.

“This is an example that it is possible if you have the determination to fight through these battles,” she said. “In the end, it makes it all worth it, like a rainbow after a storm.”

Ms. Jacko has three children now, the youngest being 14 and 16 years old.  Her son, whom she raised while attending school, is about to turn 30.

Ms. Madahbee Leach is familiar with the awards circuit. Between her and her husband, ex-NHLer Reggie Leach, the two have amassed an impressive number of accolades both for themselves and the organizations they represent.

“The first thing that came to my mind was my late aunt Lilian McGregor. I was so pleased because she’s received the same award a few years back. To me, it’s an honour mainly for that reason,” said Ms. Madahbee Leach.

Similar to Ms. Jacko, Ms. Madahbee Leach said she was taught early in life to make a difference in everything she does.

“I get pretty passionate about everything I get involved in and sincerely try to make a difference. You see so many needs out there and I get frustrated that there’s still so much to do. But when I sit down and look back, I can see that we are making some progress,” she said.

Many of Ms. Madahbee Leach’s friends and family have also been recognized for their work. Mr. Leach, her partner, received the 2008 Indspire Award (then known as a National Aboriginal Achievement Award), and Dave Nahwegahbow and Shirley Cheechoo, both friends of Ms. Madahbee Leach in her youth, have also received Indspire Awards. Several friends she has made through the years have also seen their names added to the list.

“I’m a real proponent of trying to showcase the many trailblazers we have, and we do that at Waubetek through our business awards,” said Ms. Madahbee Leach. 

She said the awards serve as a reminder for youth that all of the recipients came from humble beginnings, so the door is open for all to excel in many fields if they’re willing to work hard at their endeavours.

“It’s a real honour to become a laureate at the same time as other people from Manitoulin Island. We’re really blessed to have so many people on Manitoulin get recognized with Canada’s highest honour for Indigenous people. It’s such a small place so that means we have a lot of people who are trailblazers and are making a difference,” she said.

Ms. Madahbee Leach extended her thanks to the elders and others who have offered guidance through the years, as well as those who have joined her on her walk on Mother Earth.

Ms. Corbiere Lavell is yet another decorated Islander on this year’s list of laureates. She made history through her Indigenous rights advocacy work that fought the federal government in the Supreme Court of Canada over Indian Status rights. Although her campaign was unsuccessful, future advocates building upon her work made changes to statements within the Indian Act that discriminated based on gender.

The Indspire Lifetime Achievement Award announcement complimented her existing accolades, which include a Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case, a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and a membership within the Order of Canada.

Ms. Corbiere Lavell has also earned an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from York University for her advocacy work.

After having worked as an educator, she has a special connection to moulding the young minds of students and often speaks at school events as an elder.

The three recipients and their loved ones will be heading to a ceremony on March 6 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Several award-winning Canadian Indigenous performers will be showcasing their talents throughout the evening at the gala.

Every award recipient will be receiving a gold pin with a Canadian diamond that was mined from the Diavik Mine in Northwest Territories, courtesy of Rio Tinto. 

The awards coincide with Soaring, Indspire’s annual Indigenous youth empowerment conference that will invite hundreds of Indigenous youth from across the country to take part in workshops and presentations.

For those who wish to watch the ceremony, the awards will be broadcast on Sunday, June 21 at 8 pm on CBC, APTN and CBC Radio One.